How to communicate with your dog
Imagine being flown to Romania to live with a family. Everyone is friendly and welcoming as they show you around, explaining their activities and customs. You want to understand each other, you want to feel connected, but you don’t. Why? Because you don’t speak the same language. How would you feel if they started getting angry at you for not responding appropriately? Now imagine the same situation with a translator. You’d feel a lot better with everyone. Well, your puppy’s in the same pickle—she doesn’t understand English. Fortunately, I can help translate your thoughts and can teach you to speak to your puppy in her language: Doglish. Without this mutual communication, learning is difficult, cooperation is often misunderstood, and despair can set in quickly. Yell at your puppy, and she’ll think you’re barking. Your fast flailing motions are seen as confrontational play. Hitting is seen as an aggressive display that causes your pup to get depressed or to retaliate. On the flip side, if you take the time to learn and understand Doglish, the picture will get a lot rosier! Now imagine your puppy’s energy and behavior on a scale from 1 to 10: 1 is sleep; 10 is wildly out of control. Let’s set level 8 as the dividing line between polite and uncivil interactions. All puppies are capable of this range, and the goal is to keep your daily interactions between 1 and 8 and to teach your puppy how to contain or displace her 8- to 10-zone impulses. Don’t worry—it’s easier than it sounds. Keep reading for your crash course in Doglish! AHEM!—GETTING YOUR ATTENTION Your attention—positive or negative—influences your puppy’s behavior above all else. And if you really come to understand this concept, you’ll be way ahead of the pack. Your puppy craves your attention—she savors and emotionally longs for it when you’re busy or out. And she can’t distinguish the attention as negative or positive.
Think of the feeling of interacting with you as, metaphorically, a plug and a socket. When the plug and the socket are one, everything works. There is a solid feeling of connectedness. When the two are separated, there’s a disconnect. To your puppy, interacting with you gives her developing ego a sense of security. Getting your attention, negative or positive, becomes her early life’s focus. Your puppy will repeat behaviors based on their attention-getting potential. Remember, she won’t care if the attention is negative or positive. If jumping, stealing stuffed toys, barking, or nipping gets a rise out of you, your puppy will repeat these behaviors over and over. If sitting still, chewing a bone, giving sweet kisses, or retrieving toys are the ticket, you’ll be guaranteed a repeat performance. You give your puppy attention in three ways—through eye contact, body language, and your tone of voice. The following sections give you some pointers on how to use these attention givers in a positive way for your puppy.
Remember that whatever you focus on, you reinforce. Just looking at your puppy is giving her attention. The goal is to look at your puppy when she’s in the 1- to 8-zone and not when she’s in the 8- to 10-zone. Now I can hear some of you exclaiming, “Are you saying that I’m supposed to ignore her wild side?” Not necessarily. Throughout the book, I’ll walk you through the handling of every situation. However, when you are dealing with the 8- to 10-zone behaviors, please don’t glare at your puppy! Eye contact, even a glimpse, is attention. Instead, look at your puppy—a lot—when she’s being good.
Think of a time when you were playing on a team. Did you want a captain who slumped, shuffled his feet, or looked unsure? Probably not. How would you have wanted him to interact with you if you got confused or scared or felt out of control—frantic and angry or calm and empathetic? Remember that example when dealing with your puppy. The calmer you are, the more confident you appear. Your puppy needs a role model. So, if your puppy is losing her composure, stay calm and remain upright. If her behavior heads south, don’t pack your bags and go with her. Negative actions, such as flailing arms, bent postures, and shoving, signal escalating chaos and confrontational play to your puppy. Set an example of composure and confidence. Send her to a quiet area, or call her to your side.
Your puppy recognizes three tones: • Directional: Right now, out loud, say, “Pass the ketchup,” as if you were gathered at a table. Next, say, “Out the door and to the left,” as if you were giving someone directions. Now, in the very same tone, say, SIT, BONE, MAT, NOPE . . . you get the idea. When you’re teaching your puppy to follow your direction, use this tone: clear and confident—directional. • Praise: There are no rules here. Find your natural praise tone. Some puppies aren’t able to contain their enthusiasm: they lose focus and become hyperactive. If this sounds like your puppy, tone it down a bit. • Shame: Puppies don’t like being shamed any more than children do. Used sparingly and timed well, your disappointment will have a tremendous impact.
Once again, let’s think of you, your family if you have one, and your puppy as playing on the same team. You’re the captain—you organize her space and activities. If there are other players (who have seniority), they should help your puppy along, too. Your puppy will feel most relaxed in a home where everyone follows the same program down to the words and the routines she’ll need to know. Whether you’re starting this book with an 8-week-old or an 11-month-old puppy, your first words should mirror her basic needs. Like a human baby, your puppy has five basic needs: to eat, drink, sleep, go to the bathroom, and exercise. When a human baby is confused by one of these needs, he or she cries. A caregiver then determines what to do. No one would yell at a baby who cries from hunger or exhaustion. A puppy, just like a baby, feels restless when her body is having a need sensation. Instead of crying, however, puppies get very nippy, oral, and/or fidgety. The goal of this behavior is exactly the same as a baby’s cries: to release tension and get help. The opportunity for bonding with your puppy, just as with your baby, is tremendous: whoever helps is revered.
And the long-term goal is also the same: babies learn to use words to communicate, and puppies use the words you speak to them to learn to instigate routines, such as going to the door or fetching a toy. But in the beginning, needs are really confusing, and the time you spend helping your puppy organize herself will win you big dog bones in the end. Remember, nipping is often misconstrued as “naughty” when it’s actually a very normal way of communicating confusion about her needs. To help your puppy learn a more civilized way to communicate her needs, make a Needs Chart (see the example on this page) and show it to everyone so that all of you work together as a team—using the same words and routines—when interacting with your puppy. This consistency and repetition encourage cooperation and understanding. When making your needs chart, label each need in the first column, using, for example, HUNGRY for eating, OUTSIDE/PAPERS and GET BUSY for housetraining, and BONE or TOY for play. Choose any word; just be consistent. Overemphasize your words, and encourage everyone to do the same. In the next column, assign a specific routine, such as a place for the food bowl and a required SIT before meals, one door to one spot for housetraining, and similar bones for chewing and toys for play.
THE CIVILIZED PUPPY
A lot of time, thoughtfulness, and structuring goes into civilizing a puppy. Just think how many years it takes to civilize a human child. This may disappoint some of you, but civilizing does require effort. Metaphorically, civilizing a puppy is a lot like teaching children to look both ways before they cross a street. When babies are young and learning to walk, you must watch them near the road, but eventually those children will learn to check before crossing. The same goes for your puppy. Initially, she’ll need constant monitoring. Inevitably, she will mature and encode all the civilized skills you’ve been teaching her. Having a beloved dog live into her teens isn’t such a bad thing after all. Where you live affects your daily plan to a great extent. Here are some thoughts on three living locales:
• Country dogs: Dogs in the country have a lot less to think about—free space abounds, and people are more relaxed about property lines. The direction HEEL isn’t a top priority. Left completely untrained, however, the country puppy often feels displaced and can become destructive and annoying. After all, a puppy is still a puppy is still a puppy—structure and direction give her a sense of belonging. Teaching the basic skills that are explained in the following chapters helps the country dog know that her world is protected and that staying close to home is the safest place to be.
• Suburban Dogs: The best thing that happened for the suburban dog was the leash law. Of course, one needs to know how to use a leash to make a positive transition. If the leash were to slip from your hand or your puppy were to escape, disaster could occur within minutes. Let’s not let this happen. In the following chapters, you’ll learn leash skills and see the lesson applied everywhere.
• City dogs: Some people think it’s cruel to keep a dog in the city. I don’t. Some of my most responsible dog owners live in Manhattan and the other boroughs. Devoted to their responsibility, they make up in effort what they lack in space. They get up early, join play groups, send their puppies to doggie daycare, and hire dog walkers to come in when they can’t be home. And to top that off, city streets are very stimulating! Wonderful smells and lots of socialization, which also means tons of attention. It’s really not a bad life, no matter what your size! Of course, there are special considerations to be had in the city, too. First and foremost, you’ll want to socialize the buttons off your puppy to ensure that she grows up dog- and people-friendly, regardless of her breed’s inclinations. The directions WAIT and HEEL to navigate the streets, elevators, and alleyways, and UNDER and CORNER take top priority. And then there are the joys of curbing!